Group of photographers connect with Nicaraguan youth
By Mitch Kloorfain
We think we
know poverty. For so many families
in Nicaragua it appears the only thing they may actually own is their
According to the United Nations Human Development Report for 2009,
80 percent of Nicaraguans live below the poverty line, earning less than $2 a
I was invited/chosen to attend a workshop with
several international photographers as part of a group called The Giving Lens to
work with the youth of Empowerment International in Grenada, Nicaragua, to teach them a
skill in an effort to break the cycle of poverty and limited education.
The outcome was life changing for me, too.
Empowerment International offers
community based educational programs to students and their families in addition
to their schooling, not in lieu of.
The Giving Lens was founded by highly acclaimed, globe-trotting
professional photographer Colby Brown.
The concept was to use photography as a form of community outreach
in areas of extreme need.
So far, The Giving Lens has connected with Peru and Nicaragua and will bring photographers
to Jordan and Israel later this year.
Because we live in such a giving community here on the Treasure
Coast, my work partner, Wendy Dwyer, put out an "ask" to raise money
to cover some of my expenses for this journey, as well as to
create a surplus to make contributions to the Empowerment International. As
usual, our community came through and made a difference in the lives of others.
Much like a pledge drive on PBS television, we offered print or
digital images to those who contributed to the trip instead of a tote bag.
My 1,067-mile journey
had me heading to Fort Lauderdale airport at 8 p.m. to be on an 11:40 p.m.
flight that would have me there by 12:15 a.m. after factoring in the two- hour
time difference in this small country in Central America.
The first day started with a meet and greet of the students and
facilitators of Empowerment International. The students were very nervous as
they made their much-rehearsed speeches to this group of strangers in English.
Armando, a student with EI, was given the responsibility of taking
care of the catalog of
cameras, batteries, memory cards, cases and managing
the images on a small netbook computer.
The cameras were a collection of mostly older model point-n-shoots
with almost no two alike.
Our first excursion was to walk to a park and work with the
students on the basics of photography such as composition, color, texture and
The park was cement based with no grass, ball fields, swings or
anything we are blessed to have our youth play on.
Four kids were there wearing Chicago White Sox and Aeropostale T-shirts that were apparently donated
somewhere along the line to become part of their wardrobe.
They played by kicking a ball back and forth between them with as
much energy as a gold-medal Olympic event.
I was teamed up with Armando and Anielka, a young 15-year-old
girl, and a translator, Pamela, to help me communicate with them.
The styles of the photographers were so vastly different from one
another I decided to guide them using the journalistic methods I use with
I "assigned" Armando and Anielka to shoot a series of
images of a park, which could be used in a fictitious newspaper, to tell the
story of the park in three completely different images.
After showing them some of the aspects of an engaging photo, such
as shooting from a low angle, shooting tight to exclude distracting areas or
backgrounds and using spots of color that speckled other areas of bland color
to make them pop, I let them go. They came back to me with the story of the
park through their eyes.
There was a look of pride in their eyes that came from knowing
they had created something wonderful and completed their first assignment.
The office of Empowerment International was just up the block from
our hotel. This is where we would spend each lunch and dinner for the rest of
the week. Our meals were cooked by Carmen, a local woman who is connected by EI
with her daughter being one of the facilitators.
We gathered like a large family with an instant connection to each
other, laughing about the day's highlights, talking about the plans for the
next few days while sharing an authentic, home-cooked meal.
At that time, the poverty I expected to see escaped me, but that
would all change the next day as we toured their homes and neighborhoods.
This is the first of a three-part series. Mitch Kloorfain is chief
photographer for Hometown News.
We didn't know it when we woke,
but the students of Empowerment International in Granada, Nicaragua, were going to show the volunteer photographers with The Giving
Lens the hard realities between our contrasting life styles.
Having already completed our introduction and first photo walk
with the students, now it was time to walk a mile in their shoes.
Empowerment International is not where the students get their
schooling. EI is a successful program that works with parents and youth to
instill the value of education, as well as find solutions to the roadblocks
that may prevent the youth from attending school.
After lunch we visited the EI facility where students were being
tutored in reading and writing by other students only a few years older.
Don't picture a building with heavy double doors that leads into
an air- conditioned hallway decorated with student work that then connects you
to banks of classrooms with neat rows of desks and
This building was dimly lit except for the area by the skylight.
Benches lined the walls with students sitting along the perimeter.
As I was taking photographs of the students I felt water dripping
on my back and head. It must have been a leaky roof, I thought. I looked up and
realized the skylight was an opening in the ceiling and I was standing in a pit
where the rain water was meant to drain.
The novelty of having it rain inside the building was absent to
the students. They were focused. They were reading and the prideful smiles were
genuine when they reached the end of their lessons successfully.
When we were preparing to leave for our last (and most emotionally
lasting) part of our week we were introduced to Hobbes Ginsburg. (I know, I
repeated his name in my head about three times, too).
Hobbes, 18, named for the iconic cartoon character from the comic
strip Calvin & Hobbes, was a standout with his dyed blue hair, pierced lip,
blue jeans and
a Ramones 1974 concert T-shirt. Hobbes moved here
with his parents from the United States several years earlier when they came to
open a café. He spoke Spanish like a native and turned out to be an excellent
conduit between The Giving Lens photographers and the students for the rest of
I have been to the poorest sections of New York City, Fort Pierce,
Stuart and Topeka, Kansas. I have read "National Geographic." Nothing
prepared me for the next two hours of our journey.
The students from Empowerment International come from a locale
referred to as the barrios or the neighborhood for us north of the border.
We started walking down a single road with homes of several
students on each side.
The homes would have never passed code here in the US.
The average home had a wall or two of cinderblock, another formed
by pieces of wood nailed together with the remaining walls made a few pieces of
tin or aluminum. Barbed wire lined most of the property borders and didn't stop
the kids from running near it or resting on it as we paraded through their
Out of courtesy, we always asked permission, in our broken
Spanish, to photograph them or their children as we walked through.
We photographed mothers with their children, kids playing marbles
and those who came running out to pose for a photo.
Each time, we showed them the photos we took on the backs of the
cameras. Although it is unlikely they would see those imagers again, they
couldn't have been happier to be photographed.
As we walked through the barrio I kept looking for where it ended.
I never saw it.
Our neighborhoods of low-income housing can last for several
blocks, however this never seemed to end. We walked for nearly two hours until our return vehicle met us.
There was so much more ahead but we left with a large part of the barrio
That evening, the photographers got together. As we discussed the
day we attempted to process what we just witnessed.
It was unanimous that the residents we met in the barrios of
Granada were generous to share themselves with us.
Those few miles we walked were life changing with respect to how I
view poverty home and abroad and how naive my own perceptions and
interpretations were before witnessing it in the barrios of Granada, Nicaragua.
I came here to
teach photography. The
ratio of what I have learned to what I have taught is greatly imbalanced.
The hardest part of planting a
seed is waiting to see the growth of what that seed will produce.
During a trip to Nicaragua with The Giving Lens, a group of nine
photographers were on board to teach students of Empowerment International the craft and skills of photography
and plant seeds that will hopefully produce a great crop in the future.
We were in Granada, Nicaragua,
for only a week, but in that short time we grew strong, life-long relationships
as we honed their skills and techniques with cameras and
by processing their images.
By the middle of the week we
had climbed two volcanoes, Masaya and Mombacho, took a sunset tour on the
water, practiced street photography in one of the local markets and returned to
the barrio for a personal tour of the lives of the photography students.
These volcanoes are vast. They
grow from the ground and don't stop until they are literally in the clouds.
Even though they see the
volcanoes on their horizons, none of the students had ever made the journey in their own
backyard where others have traveled thousands of miles to do so.
When we finally got to the top,
we were met with heavier winds, much cooler temperatures and a visibility of
about 100 feet to go with the rainy mist dampening our clothes.
The visiting photographers with
The Giving Lens knew where we were going and dressed for it.
The students hiked the
volcanoes in what they had which meant flip flops, second-hand dress shoes, thin T-shirts and maybe a borrowed extra shirt by someone
who brought a spare.
We stopped at plants and
flowers that caught a ray of sunlight, if just for a few moments, and showed
the students how to use their cameras like magnifying glasses to create macro
At an altitude of 4,400 feet we
taught them to create interesting scenic landscape images by including a
foreground element such as a unique rock, tree or other object on the hiking
trail around the volcano's rim.
Another excursion took our
entire group on two separate small boats zig- zagging Lake Nicaragua's sights
during the prime late afternoon light and its connected, long late afternoon
Lake Nicaragua is speckled with
hundreds of islands, some not much bigger than the singular house that sits
We wove between the islands
with the help of an experienced boat guide who pointed out birds, monkeys and
landmarks in Spanish.
It was thrilling to watch the
students discover their new surroundings while also showing them how to capture
and preserve them.
Due to some bad weather we were
held back from taking a trip to another barrio where Empowerment International
works with a smaller group of students in a very remote area. I was sorry to
have missed meeting more of the group. Instead, the mid-afternoon rainstorms,
much like Florida's, forced us inside to work with the students on organizing
and editing images in
Images that are created only
have value if they can be accessed and found later with an easy to navigate
After going over those basics
and a few Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom skills to make the images pop, it was
clear to see their understanding of these new concepts was making a difference
in their workflow as photographers.
This time together ended up
being the highlight of this journey second only to the family style meals we
While several groups were
working on the computers, another was setting up a gallery of framed images made by the students for an
upcoming showcase of their work.
"For four years now I have
dreamed of creating a tour where photographers could come and shoot alongside
our kids and explore Nicaragua in unison, with the idea of an equal co-learning
experience," said Kathy Adams, EI founder and
"For this to finally
happen is a dream come true. The kids have not stopped talking about the tour
and the participants that came seem to have been extremely impacted in a
positive way. There is no doubt it was a win-win situation," she said.
As our days together were winding
down we knew it would be difficult to say goodbye.
We ended our time together as
it began, with public affirmations of what we all got out of our time together
except for one difference. This time there were tears.
We came to plant the proverbial
seeds of photography and these will grow, like any plant, with nurturing.
I saw the changes we made in a
week. I look forward to additional growth in the next month, year and more.
If you want to be part of
making a difference while also having them make a difference in you visit
www.empowermentinternational.org and tell them The Giving Lens sent you.
Mitch Kloorfain is chief
photographer for Hometown News. This is the last of a
are several links from the team of photographers that contributed to the
Mitch Kloorfain's images in Google+
Varina Patel on Google+
Jay Patel on Google+
Michael Bonocore on Google+
The Giving Lens on Google+